Great Pop Music and Strawberry Switchblade's Place In It

by Merrick, webmaster of

The first band I loved was The Jam. Back then in the late 70s and early 80s, music was dominated by the five forces of disco, prog rock, Adult-Oriented Rock (AOR), bubblegum pop and punk.

Prog was the worst music ever made, the ultimate belief in style over content, where what mattered was technique and not soul. It said absolutely nothing and it said it loud and long. Very long. Being able to play 27 notes a second doesn't mean a musician is good, any more than being a fast and accurate typist makes you a good writer.

Bubblegum pop has always been around, and History does a thorough job of erasing its no-talent proponents from our memories. Only nutters or obsessives can even remember Racey, The Rubettes, Taylor Dayne, Glen Madeiros, Fabian and the legions of other soulless saps. It's nothing to worry about, it's just cack for people to hum along to in the hairdressers, music as wallpaper.

AOR was the beginning of Dad Rock; conservative and be-mulletted guitar music for people who'd grown up on loud guitars and so had a Pavlovian response to rawk n rawl sounds, but needed it in a safe, predictable, dull and sanitised form.

Disco did produce many powerful and magnificent records but it was aimed at an audience in, well, a disco. It was about free energy, kinetic good times. This is all well and good, but it doesn't speak to people who are too awkward, self-conscious or insecure to Make You Feel Mighty Real. And for teenagers, almost all of whom are those awkward people, a fresh and honest music is needed to tell them they're not alone, to give them something that understands and expresses what they feel, to give them something to BELONG to.

So for them, the only music was punk and its offspring of New Wave and indie. The scene that gave me The Jam, and later gave us Strawberry Switchblade.

There in the early 80s the dinosaur prog rock noodlers had died off, but there were new pretenders to take their place. Duran Duran spent £200,000 on photos for the album Seven And The Ragged Tiger that never got used. They'd be in videos in flash suits riding yachts across tropical oceans. At least when the Beach Boys sang of such things it was from familiarity, rather than Duran Duran's Birmingham background. This was not music to affirm, enrich or inspire; it was merely entertainment to dazzle you into giving them acclaim and - most importantly - your hard cash.

For the rebels Heavy Metal was the most obvious option. People forget how HUGE metal was in the 80s. Iron Fucking Maiden played stadiums for fuck's sake. But much of 80s metal was Duran Duran with a distortion pedal on the guitar. The meaning was the same. More preening egotists in circus outfits who were trying to take from you far more than they ever gave.

In many senses the true rebel music was found in the independent bands, people talking of real lives and trying to share, inspire and enchant rather than merely impress. Anyone who remembers The Smiths doing Shoplifters Of The World Unite on Top Of The Pops will surely recognise indie as the most rousing, honest, real and therefore rebellious music of the time.

The 80s was a time when great strides were made for individualism against all kinds of conformity, and Strawberry Switchblade were very much a part of it. Strawberry Switchblade were great feminists precisely BECAUSE they didn't make a point of talking about feminist issues.

Strawberry Switchblade were ground-breaking because they simply got on with being intelligent, well defined capable artists on their own terms, disregarding any pressure for dungareed social critique as comprehensively as sexist patriarchal pressures. They were part of a new breed of bands, unashamed, fresh and honest.

The same Glasgow scene that gave us the Postcard record label and bands like Orange Juice, The Pastels, Primal Scream, The Jesus And Mary Chain and Aztec Camera gave us Strawberry Switchblade. For those who had the contradictory mix of self-consciousness and passion, of insecurity and fervour, the awkward, delicate, fragile confusion and paradox of bittersweet happy-sad pop was there.

Pop music, on one level, is just something that is on in the background, something on the radio while we eat our breakfast. But it is this level that allows it to be around us and so let certain songs become part of our cultural fabric, part of our selves. Stuff that you (perhaps rightly) thought was insignificant froth when it was on the radio when you were fourteen can now pull your heartstrings and move you emotionally in a way that the new, say, Radiohead, Eminem or Belle & Sebastian - no matter how great its creative worth - simply cannot.

Pop can do this - any music that has lived with you, in you, can do this. But pop's shiny catchiness makes it commonplace. These songs are often widely known, and so anyone from your culture and generation - like it or not - will be bonded by a common canon of pop songs.

But there is something more too. The catchiness, the background-usage means that it is easy to get massively subversive messages out into mass consciousness in pop. My niece was five years old when she and her mates would all sing along to Afroman's tale of excessive drug consumption Because I Got High. At the same age I was listening to Lou Reed telling me 'but she never lost her head even when she was giving head' in Walk On The Wild Side.

I remember the Housemartins bouncy guitar pop of Happy Hour, a stinging slag-off of unthinkingly selfish sexist wage-slave drinkers - being danced to by exactly the kind of people it criticised. Enough of us had listened to the lyrics for this kind of thing to be a hilarious Trojan Horse.

Other artists use their success to be more overt. Again, the Smiths doing Shoplifters on Top Of The Pops comes to mind.

It's in this ability to simultaneously offer several different emotions and perspectives that real heart and soul can be found in pop music. And Strawberry Switchblade are a clear example of this. Delicate and fragile yet always powerfully individual, confused yet assertive, rarely confident or cowering. With Jill's agoraphobia and the brutalities of Rose's upbringing, both of them had a lot of anguish to express. And yet they wanted to do it with something beautiful and affirming that defied the pain they'd known.

Aldous Huxley said that, after silence, music comes closest to expressing the inexpressible. And it is this unnameable blend of emotions, at once happy and sad, cautious and wild, bold and timid, exuberant and mournful, that characterises the greatest pop music. And it describes Strawberry Switchblade perfectly too.

For all the flaws and corporatisation of much of the released material and the half-finishedness of some of the later unreleased songs, there was something clearly real and true there, a small greatness created by Strawberry Switchblade.

I'm proud to have done this website cos Strawberry Switchblade DESERVE proper documentation and appreciation, a space to tell their story and have their music heard.

Merrick, 2003